Whether he pulls on the blue and red of Barcelona or Argentina's iconic celeste y blanca stripes, Lionel Messi plays a very important role on the pitch. But La Pulga is no robot; his game changes depending on whom he has around him, demonstrating his versatility.
This is not surprising. Success for the Rosario, Argentina, native has come by the bucket-load in club football, summed up by an incredible 353 goals in 422 appearances. Barring catastrophe, Messi is on target to smash every record going for the Blaugrana.
But finding his role with his home nation has not been nearly as straightforward. The man who moved to Europe barely into his teenage years has had to battle harder than anyone to convince a sceptical public he is the same player who lights up La Liga on a weekly basis.
One could even argue that it is only in the last three years, with the assumption of coach Alejandro Sabella, that Messi has finally begun to show his best side for the Seleccion.
When analysing the star's play in club and international colours, there is one crucial difference to take into account. When strutting across the Camp Nou, Messi enjoys behind him the talismanic talents of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets—in short, one of the best midfield line-ups in world football.
In Argentina, meanwhile, La Pulga has the pleasure of playing alongside Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero going forward. While the middle of the pitch does not give the same security as in Barcelona, Leo forms part of, again, one of the best forward partnerships on the planet—be it club or national football.
This subtle variation between Messi's two loves translates into a different approach to football once on the pitch. The embarrassment of riches Barca possess behind the Argentine means that he can afford to play a languid, probing game based around the edge of the rival penalty area.
The No. 10's last performance, a wonderful display in saving his team against Villarreal, demonstrates his role in the Blaugrana. This heat map, courtesy of Squawka, makes clear that his natural territory is poised around the penalty area.
When he receives the ball there, he has two options. He can take on the defender, bursting into the box and opening up for the shot. Or, he can lay off to a team-mate (never in short supply in Barcelona) and make the burst without possession, in hope of receiving the final pass and converting. This is exactly how Messi took all three points against the Yellow Submarine.
The role he plays is not without its critics. The lurking centre-forward does not make for quite as attractive watching as the young dynamo who left defenders sprawling across the pitch on his way to goal.
Indeed, the press pilloried Messi following Barcelona's Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid when it transpired he had covered just 6.8 kilometres in the entire match, just 1.5 km more than goalkeeper Pinto, per UEFA.com. Does this mean La Pulga has turned lazy, however?
His performances in Argentina would beg to differ.
The Seleccion play a different game than the Catalans. While players such as Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano are capable of taking the ball down and keeping possession, the team looks most dangerous when breaking rapidly, utilising fast counters that leave opposition bewildered and open. Messi, playing with some of the most dangerous attacking talents around, has thrived in this system.
Unlike his club game, the captain is most likely to be found stalking around the centre circle while on international duty, drifting to the left in support of di Maria or looking for Aguero further ahead. A wonderful qualifying campaign saw him smash 10 goals, his best haul for the Albiceleste. And if we look at some of the strikes, we detect a movement and verve that is possibly lacking when he takes the field for Barca.
A significant percentage of his strikes originated either in Argentina's half or just inside rival territory. While Messi was still deadly in and around the box, a more direct style of play allows him more space and freedom to show his natural game, not relying so much on the little touches and flicks that make the difference in the final third.
Having the likes of Higuain and Aguero around him returns the creation part of the game to Messi's repertoire. Few have benefited as much from the Barcelona man's exact passing and brilliant vision—often underrated compared to his goal-scoring prowess—as Pipita.
And while such statistics are seldom available for South American games, one can be almost certain that Messi's distance-covered data would be far higher than seen in recent years in the Barcelona shirt. There is no doubt that, just as the star revels in having the support of the Blaugrana's midfield geniuses, the added dynamism of the Argentina front three helps him raise his game to another level.
Fickle fans that have started to doubt Messi's work rate or commitment to the team are only seeing one half of the story. La Pulga is an outstanding footballer, but he is also one blessed with great intelligence. He adapts his play to those around him, taking on the role most needed in the team.
With the best midfield behind him, he is the consummate hitman. Surrounded by quality forwards, he becomes once more the creative linchpin, driving his nation from midfield and laying on countless goals both for himself and his team-mates. Both versions of Lionel Messi deserve endless acclaim for what they have achieved in the world of football.
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